Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Baseball Glove

After two years of my mother being in a nursing home, we've decided it's time to turn my parents' house into a home for its current occupants. This means sorting through a lifetime of accumulations and memories and figure out what to keep and what to throw out.

My son and his friend live there now, and recently they spent the day going through some old stuff of mine and my sister's, when were were kids, and putting it in individual boxes. One such object was the first baseball glove I ever owned. It got me through Little League and high school; and it got me through countless softball games as I got older.

But today, it's so worn down it looks like an animal chewed on it. All the original laces are gone, and the pocket is held together with laces from a pair of sneakers. I'm sure I didn't think of that. I'm just as sure that my father DID.

I know this because when the glove got to the point, I'd have wanted my father to go out and buy me another one. And he'd have used the opportunity to lecture me about how money doesn't grown on trees, and that if you can use your ingenuity to fix it, then that's what you do.

I was a typical kid. The minute something lost its new sheen, I wanted another one. My father was a kid who grew up in the depression. He played hockey with cardboard boxes for pads. He knew a great deal more about thrift than I ever did until he got old, and his finances got away from him.

But this isn't a "Daddy Dearest" blog item. It's a blog item about how the glove was autographed by Don Drysdale, and how much I idolized him as a child, simply because of that.

I loved the Los Angeles Dodgers when I was a kid. One of the happiest times in my life occurred in 1963, when the swept the New York Yankees out of the world series. Two years later, they won the whole thing again; and the year after that -- 1966 -- they were swept out of the series by another fledgling baseball dynasty ... the Baltimore Orioles.

From my total infatuation with Don Drysdale (which ended in the mid-1960s when I became Brooks Robinson's biggest non-Oriole fan), I learned the frustration of following West Coast baseball (something we no longer have to deal with thanks to the Internet). I'd wake up at 7 in the morning in the summer, dive for the newspaper see whether the Dodgers won and if Drysdale pitched. And if their game was in LA, you'd get a big (N) next to the game in the daily standings.

And since there was no 24/7 news cycle either back in the 1960s, you had to wait until the next day to find out how the West Coasters did.

That never mattered to me, though. I was a Don Drysdale guy. And, by extension, a Dodgers' guy. Oh, I knew all about Sandy Koufax and Johnny Podres, and I loved them. But only because they were on the same team as Don Drysdale.

Because he was a Californian by birth as well as vocation, and because he was a tall, good looking drink of water, Drysdale had cameos on a lot of the era's TV shows. He even showed up on "Leave it to Beaver."

He may have had a glamorous image, but he was one, tough, MEAN SOB on the mound. Had a blazing fastball, and he wasn't afraid to use it as a weapon.

Drysdale played three years longer than Koufax, retiring in 1969 with 209 wins and a 2.75 earned run average. He pitched 58 scoreless innings in 1968 -- his last full season in the majors. He is in the Hall of Fame.

"Big D" was 6-5 and 195 pounds ... or so he was listed. Anyone 6-5 weighing 195 had to look like a twig, and Drysdale was no twig. He may have been 195 when he was a raw rookie, but I'm sure he filled out over 200 by the time he was in his prime. Hell, his legs had to have weighed that much.

We move forward to 1987, by which time Drysdale is one of the two principal broadcasters for the Chicago White Sox. On this particular weeknight, the White Sox were in Boston, which meant that both Drysdale and Ken Harrelson were under the same roof. FI think I lost my keys and had to wait until the person who was offering to take me home was ready to leave. And he didn't want to. He wanted to sit around and listen to Don Drysdale and Ken Harrelson to swap stories.

If there were any two better raconteurs than "Big D" and "The Hawk" back then, I defy you to name him. These guys were the best. They were sitting in the media room, knocking back their drinks, and talking about the "old days." Every story was funnier than the last one.

And this is one of the bigger reasons baseball is such a great game. It lends itself to folklore as easily as tales of the wild, wild west. Every player has a war story, and they're all fascinating.

You don't hear this in any other sport. You certainly don't hear it in pro football, because most of the time, when ex-NFLers get together, they talk more about "this hurts, I can't bend this, and I've had so many concussions I'm donating my brain to research." It'll be a cold day in hell before Bill Belichick sits on a bench in the dugout, regaling reporters about some of the game's greats. But Drysdale and Harrelson were doing exactly that. I was loving it.

And I was a wonderful audience, too. I laughed at everything either one of them said. I think by the end of the night they were ready to pay me for making them look like professional comics.

But somewhere, I snuck my tale of youthful idolatry into the conversation. I was 33 years old at the time, and hardly what you'd call a wide-eyed innocent. Heck no. I was covering the Sox that night.

You take a risk telling ex-athletes how much you admire them, but I have to say I've had great luck in this regard. When Boston hosted the 1999 all-star game, they introduced the all-century team at a luncheon/meet and greet.

I'd heard all about what a churl Bob Gibson was. So I talked with Warren Spahn ... and caught up with Brooks Robinson. We both a lot about Frank Robinson, who was the best ballplayer I ever saw with my own eyes, as opposed to reading, or hearing, about him.

When I finally summoned up the nerve, I went up to Gibson and told him that I was from Boston. He thought I was going to come up and start ragging on him because of the 1967 World Series. But I was actually coming up to him to say how much I enjoyed seeing him beat the Yankees way back in 1964. He liked that a lot better, and we talked about that game, and about Johnny Keane (the Cardinals manager), and about, of all people, Tim McCarver (who annoyed me even back then).

It was a nice conversation. Gibson's actually a pretty funny guy.

That's how it was with Drysdale too. I told him how having his name on my glove opened me up to being not just a Red Sox fan, but a fan of the game. And while I don't deny today that I love my Sox as much as the next guy, I'm also a fan of the game.

I walked away from the conversation extremely grateful that someone I'd idolized as a little kid turned out to such a great guy when I finally got to meet him.

Drysdale died of a heart attack on July 3, 1993. That would be just a month before I turned 40 ... certainly old enough, and cynical enough, to remain singularly unimpressed with treating athletes like they were gods.

Yet it affected me. Because all I could think of, when I heard that he'd died, was that thank God, when I finally got to meet him, he appeared every bit as nice and genuine as I'd ever hoped he would be.

That poor glove. It's horrible looking. If looks like it belongs on the Island of Misfit Toys. It's the Charlie Brown's Christmas Tree of baseball gloves.

Yet like a lot of things, it has great symbolism to me. Holding it my left hand, putting it on my left hand ... in that instant, I was transported back my local Little League field, trying desperately to catch the ground balls my coach was hitting me.

And listening to Don Drysdale's wonderful tales of what it was like to be a Major League ballplayer.

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